In her buoyant adaptation of Little Women, Greta Gerwig demonstrates her love for Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel in every scene, as well as something more enlivening: a drive to add her own, modern sensibility — to tease things out of the story of Jo March and her three bright-eyed sisters that no one has before. That Gerwig in only her second feature film manages to meet the likes of Alcott partway is a blooming miracle.
Audaciously, Gerwig begins the movie well into the second half of Alcott’s book, with the newly independent Jo (Saoirse Ronan) submitting a short story to a condescending but not unreceptive male publisher, Dashwood (Tracy Letts, representing the myopic American patriarchy yet again). The publisher buys Jo’s work — victory! — but makes her rewrite it to his specifications and pays her a pittance. Qualified victory! So, Gerwig has framed Little Women as Jo’s struggle to tell her story in her own way, sans interference. The problem is: What is the story that Jo wants to tell? She hasn’t quite found her own voice amid the din of so many other, male-prescribed narratives.
Gerwig’s boldest innovation is structural. She jumps back and forth between timelines, each with its own distinct palette. In the past — the Civil War years in Concord, Massachusetts, when the four March sisters and their mother (Laura Dern) labor to stay afloat with Mr. March incommunicado at the front lines — the feel is busy and babbling, warmed by radiant reds and greens. The “present,” in contrast, is bluish and pale, as if the family’s separation has denuded the world of color. Jo has moved to the city to teach and write, Amy (Florence Pugh) to Paris to study painting under the auspices of an exactingly old-fashioned aunt (Meryl Streep), while in Concord, the simple Meg (Emma Watson) functions well as a wife and mother. The baby of the family, Beth (Eliza Scanlan), is a gifted pianist, but her powerful soul is hobbled by an ever-weaker constitution.
The past is certainly the nicer place to hang, but it’s no Eden. The March girls are hungry and fearful, each facing pressure to marry a man who will support (and maybe constrain) her. Amy, who aims to succeed within the status quo, is resentful of Jo, who aims to transcend it, and the conflict between these sisters has surprising weight. Little Women is often thought of as Jo’s story, but there are two mighty consciousnesses here. Though petite, Pugh’s voice is husky and her eyes look as if they could engulf actors three times her size. She’s so fully in the world that she can make Ronan’s Jo seem wanly detached — and wan is not a word you’d usually associate with Ronan, whose intellect is manifest in every syllable, her cadences Irish (sassy but lyrical) even when her diction is Yankee. The Amy-in-Paris section isn’t the “B” plot this time. It’s the story (not quite tragic, but very sad) of a spirited young woman with not quite enough talent to transcend the sexual mores of her era, and it’s a fascinating counterpoint to Jo’s problem: how to find her uniquely female voice as a writer without forsaking love, and how to find love without giving up her uniquely female voice. The two actresses — one established, with several Oscar nominations under her belt, the other coming on fast — are thrillingly well-matched, their hate as credible as their love. Gerwig even leaves open the possibility that Amy’s near-fatal plunge through the ice after burning her sister’s manuscript is a calculated act to save the most important relationship in her life.
Gerwig’s overflowing humanism could have swamped the story, but the emotional details are very precise. The four sisters (even the dull Meg, whom Watson fails to make more interesting) are a pulsing, bubbling, fractious unit, and every character has a chance to show a side you don’t expect. Casting an actress like Streep as the insufferable aunt means we’ll suffer her more readily than usual, and Gerwig and Streep find moments to break the character open, to show that this woman who seems like an impulsive, unreflective saboteur is aware of how baleful she sounds but is willing to make herself hated to save her nieces’ from the fate of remaining single. She’s a martyr in her own eyes. The Laurie (short for Theodore Laurence) of Timothée Chalamet might take me several more viewings to comprehend. As a rich boy who seems thrown off kilter by his own handsomeness and privilege, Chalamet has the air of a ‘50s Method leading man — the sort who seems too big for the costume, for the role, for a life in which committing to things is so much less attractive than wallowing in indecision. You don’t know whether you like or dislike him, or whether he’s fit or dangerous for Jo — which, come to think of it, is exactly how it should be.
If there’s a downside to splitting the narrative into two timelines, it’s that the fate of Beth comes too early — although Gerwig pulls off a visual coup when she has Jo descend the same staircase in two different periods to discover her sister’s fate. The distance created by constant flashbacks is bridged by the emotion in Gerwig’s filmmaking. Yorick Le Saux’s camera is always in the right place to catch the characters’ drift, while Nick Houy’s editing is so finely attuned to the rhythms of each scene that you’re barely aware of the shifts in perspective. (This kind of editing doesn’t win awards, though it deserves them more than the flash stuff.) The inexhaustibly tuneful Alexandre Desplat might be channeling Beth in his piano-heavy score, its brightness cut with dissonances like passing dark clouds, but there’s too much of it in the second half. The movie is so good you want Gerwig to lay off a little and give you a chance to mull over what you’ve seen. Like her character in Frances Ha, she can be over-solicitous, galumphing instead of graceful.
As Little Women enters its final section (in which its characters are ready to be married off), Gerwig isn’t ready to let the story go, even if that means going meta. The novel might have been revolutionary, finding momentous drama among women who weren’t off fighting the war but tending to its casualties at home along with the sick and indigent, but Louisa May Alcott had to conform in some respects to the demands of her time and the genre. So does Gerwig, but she finds an ingenious way to let us have Alcott’s happy ending and tweak it, too. Along the way, she subtly evokes the final scene of Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career (1978), in which the young writer-heroine — an Australian Jo — sadly turns her Prince Charming down. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Gerwig gestures towards Armstrong, who in 1994 directed the last (very fine) Hollywood adaptation of Little Women. It’s Gerwig’s way of expanding her canvas to include her predecessors in film — while reaching out to the little Jos and Amys and Beths in the audience. You don’t have to choose between your art and your life, she’s saying, because your art contains your life — and your life can be your art. At her best, Gerwig can make galumphing seem an even higher form of grace — one that’s doesn’t just forgive imperfection but rejoices in it.